Missing media item.

September/October 2017

Intermodal Technology Efforts Gain, More Coordination Needed

Tremendous potential exists to further expand intermodal technology and automation, EXPO speakers said, amid the ongoing challenge of trying to coordinate and connect information systems that vary across the modes.

Several education session panelists chronicled intermodalrelated technology advancements.

Advent Intermodal Solutions’ Allen Thomas, who works with freight data provider eModal, said collaboration has taken hold as BCOs and customers are seeking to use the same data being provided by the company to marine terminal operators and truckers. Automating data transmissions can particularly help workers such as truck dispatchers who do repetitive tasks, he added.

REZ-1’s service to reserve and manage equipment has made advancements such as incorporating motor carrier delivery records and is moving to implement application programming interface, or API, based data integration, said Chief Technology Officer Jim Glatiotis.

At MercuryGate International, Intermodal Product Manager Jim Perdue stressed the importance and value of gathering data from disparate sources, feeding it into tracking and billing databases and addressing customer confidence.

“The biggest thing is convincing [customers] that the information is there,” he said, if it’s stored in the cloud.

Matthew Wittemeier of Germany’s INFORM GmbH outlined the benefits of actual cost reduction and efficiency gains in terminal operations, while also raising another key point many others addressed.

“Data standardization is a significant issue,” Wittemeier said. “Data collaboration in intermodal is in its infancy.”

Data Sharing Is Critical

Navis Vice President Scott Holland said, “If we can share data effectively, that will drive a positive outcome.” Holland said a company survey found that the poor coordination of information and lack of resulting freight visibility challenges were the logistics industry’s largest challenges. More than half of those surveyed recognized the freight industry generally lags in technology adoption.

Brian Mellen, vice president of technology at ITS ConGlobal, put it this way: “For automation to work, the data has to come together. We have to work on standardizing the data sets. There is no standard in the internet of things for machines to talk to each other.”

AT&T representative James Pope made two related points. “There are lots of ways to use data inside company silo systems,” he explained. “But they are not ready to standardize. There isn’t the same equipment or APIs.” Also, Pope cited a trucking company that was reluctant to share information with external sources.

Adam Compain, CEO of ClearMetal, said terminal customers are having difficulty making sense of the data they receive, though they want to use it for innovation.

“We know we have a whole bunch of capacity deployed at ports,” he said. “How do we get smarter with information for the end customer?”

For Brian Moran, vice president of product management at Savi Technology, it’s difficult to convince some users to share data from things like a sensor on a container.

Uber Expert Interviewed

An EXPO technology highlight was IANA Chair Adriene Bailey’s interview with Uber Freight Director Bill Driegert, making his first public appearance in that role.

IANA Chair Bailey (left) chats with Uber's Driegert about technological advances in the freight and intermodal industries.

For intermodal, his broad message was don’t worry about an Uber model encroaching today. There are no plans to enter the drayage market now, though he envisions a similar eventual intermodal benefit from the “one touch” freight booking, shipping and payment model that Uber offers today for people.

“There is a dream of Uberization in the truckload space that is becoming more and more clear.”

His company is selling transparent and fast technology, targeting shippers with an initial focus on the spot market. Driegert believes Uber can capitalize on that opportunity, working with shippers’ transportation management systems rather than trying to “unplug” them altogether, and focusing on speed as well as exception management.

“What distinguishes us is that being Uber, we benefit from what technology already is in the market,” he added. “There is a lot of room for improvement in visibility and pricing.”

The result will be challenges to the more complex existing model that involves dispatchers, brokers and carriers, that he referred to collectively as “a lot of manual touchpoints.”

He also said he believes that the Uber model’s improved visibility over other freight shipping systems will force service improvements.

He repeatedly cited the goal of being “driver centric,” giving drivers the ability to quickly select and book loads.

Other Key Intermodal Issues

Other important factors are at work, shaping the interface between intermodal and technology.

Other important factors are at work, shaping the interface between intermodal and technology.

There was brief discussion of promise from the spread of blockchain technology, with its potential to simplify tracking based on recent tests. Rick Mihelic, program manager for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said he believes fully autonomous vehicles will be focused on longer-haul routes and drivers will still be needed for local pickups and deliveries. On the other hand, autonomous trucks’ flexibility could be limited when traveling to multiple destinations.

Rod Case, a partner at consultant Oliver Wyman, also noted risk for intermodal because domestic equipment utilization needs improvement and autonomous vehicles would compete directly with rail over long distances.

Mihelic cautioned that automation will be fueled by private sector carriers and investors, unless something else happens. The public and government reactions to the first few incidents involving autonomous vehicles could alter that picture, he said, citing how in years past that new regulations resulted from widely publicized SUV rollovers.

“The reality is that innovators don’t want rules at all, or very little,” Mihelic said.

Case agreed, saying “regulators in the U.S. will be on their heels, trying to catch up.”

Case believes that the potential for lawsuits will hinder many U.S. transportation innovations despite the fact that technology development has been robust. The results of those advancements are surfacing overseas, such as advanced truck autonomy in Europe and automated trains tested in Kazakhstan.

Automation also will change the labor force. Several speakers said there may be reluctance to switch to managing new technology, such as positive train control, by those who now perform similar tasks.

Download the PDF of this article